College of

Opting Out

Thursday, November 24, 2016 - 9:30am

A growing number of parents across various states have allowed their children to opt out of taking standardized tests, arguing the scores are improperly used to evaluate students and teachers. This movement begs the question—what are the merits of standardized testing?

Craig Hochbein, assistant professor of Educational Leadership in the College of Education, challenged graduate students in his public education policy class in summer 2016 to write opinion-editorials that discuss the role and influence of standardized testing. Here are excerpts.

Elizabeth Babbin, Instructional support teacher, Lower Macungie Middle School in the East Penn School District, Instructional support teacher, Lower Macungie Middle School in the East Penn School District

I am not alone, as an American parent, in seeking regular medical care for my children. In fact, I am confident other parents would rightfully label me as negligent if I did not. Our pediatrician checks my sons' growth annually to make sure they are on track. She screens their blood and urine for signs of deficiencies or illnesses, checks their blood pressure, pulse, and reflexes, and protects them from diseases.

Why would I approach their academic well-being any differently? I want regular, objective information from their schools that tells me where they stand academically. If there are concerns, I want to know—and I expect that their teachers and schools would want this same information. And just as the health of our nation is stronger when all children receive regular health care, our educational well-being is also strengthened when the widest range of children and schools participate in structured standardized testing processes.

If we do not know where our children stand in their academic abilities, how can we nurture their development? Gathering information about our children's status to help them thrive makes sense in medicine, and it makes sense in education. Opt-out advocates, many teachers unions and some vocal parents disagree, and they are working to disrupt or eliminate standardized testing. This strategy risks our ability to help our students and has the potential to damage the public's perception of educators.

Educators owe it to students and schools to improve our measures. Parents, unions and other objectors can strengthen the system by working to change it for the better, rather than just walking away by opting out or advocating the abolishment of standardized testing.

Robert Nichols, Communications director, College of Arts and Sciences at Lehigh, Communications director, College of Arts and Sciences at Lehigh

My neighbor has two daughters, one in second grade and one in sixth. I asked her what she thought about the PSSA, Pennsylvania's standardized achievement test. "Don't get me started," she exclaimed. "I've never dealt with such angst in the kids. I'm tempted to opt out next time."

My two children are out of school. My wife and I actively participated in their educations, but for nine years, we questioned the need for standardized testing. I never felt the assessments provided me with a complete picture as to how my children were progressing.

We need criterion-oriented assessments that provide an understanding of student and school performance. But I posit that standardized testing appraises a student's performance on one particular day and does not consider external influencers. What happens if a student has a death in the family just before the assessment? What if a student is frequently bullied and is fearful of attending school?

With standardized exams, all students answer the same questions under the same conditions. These tests are full of questions that may not have the same meaning to all students. They do not measure the ability to think deeply or creatively in all fields.

Standardized testing is a snapshot, no more. Not every student progresses at the same rate. A better gauge would be to assess progress over the course of an entire academic year.

Standardized tests such as the PSSA do nothing more than place intense pressure on teachers and schools, teach students to learn what is on a test and not the overarching content, and give the public an incomplete and inaccurate picture as to the academic health of their local schools. And that is not good for education.

Katie Makoski, Compliance analyst, Communities In Schools of the Lehigh Valley, Compliance analyst, Communities In Schools of the Lehigh Valley

It is in students' best interest for educators and policymakers to agree [on] a minimum standard for what every high school graduate should know. A set of national education standards, such as the Common Core, ensures a very basic level of equality in the quality of education in schools across the country. Yet standards-based testing as it is being implemented now is not helping students meet those standards, nor is it helping schools maintain those standards.

For all of the number-crunching that goes into collecting standardized test scores for students in classrooms across the country, very little, if any, good data is produced. A primary issue with the current system of testing is that states have each been free to develop their own tests. This causes the threshold for proficiency to differ from state to state. This disparity has been evident when student achievement data produced by certain states—Mississippi, for example—has varied greatly from the data collected through the administration of the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests. The question that follows then is whether any of the state-produced standardized tests are valid measures of student proficiency.

A second significant issue with the current system of high-stakes testing is that test scores are treated as though they are measures of multiple items: student learning, teacher effectiveness and school quality. It is arguable whether test scores are valid measures of any of these. It is certain that the scores are not valid measures of all of these. Yet, provisions of No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top have led to many teachers and principals being removed from their jobs, based on their students' scores on standardized tests.

This type of punitive action—in addition to being unfair to the teachers and principals—harms students by creating instability within schools. A smarter and more sustainable solution to the problem of allegedly ineffective teachers and principals would be to use support from the federal government to provide rigorous, research-based professional development to staff at persistently underperforming schools. This is not to say, though, that there will be a one-size-fits-all solution.

This is where the American culture of local governance of schools comes into play. Those who operate a school district—superintendents, principals, teachers and countless support staff—know the challenges that face their school communities best. They simply need guidance and resources in creating the solutions that will work best for their schools and students.

Sara Vanderbeck '09G, Lead Teacher,Centennial School of Lehigh University, Lead Teacher,Centennial School of Lehigh University

Dylan enters my high school classroom—hood up, headphones in—looking as awake as any other 17-year-old at 7:45 a.m. Dylan attends Lehigh's Centennial School, an approved private school for students classified with emotional disturbance and autism. Today he will participate in Pennsylvania's statewide standardized test, the Literature Keystone Exam.

"Mrs. V., why do I need to take the Keystones?" he says dispiritedly as he removes his hood. Tears well in his eyes as he says, "I already know I'm way below grade level. This is just going to make me feel stupid." I know that the Keystone Exam is not going to show Dylan's incredible academic gains this year. It is not going to illustrate that he increased his reading fluency skills from second to fourth grade level. One standardized test will measure only a small part of his education. I could explain to Dylan that standardized tests can provide fair, valid and reliable assessments when used for their intended purpose. [In] my Centennial literature class, six of seven students scored Proficient on the Literature Keystone Exam after most scoring Basic in eighth grade. In that case, the Keystone was an accurate measure of their academic growth. I could expound on how historically low expectations and poor curriculum for students with disabilities can be counteracted by the use of statewide standardized assessments to identify schools that need help improving their special education programs.

Dylan has participated in over a dozen standardized tests. He doesn't understand that the Keystone is only one small piece of his academic picture. I can only imagine the frustration and discouragement as Dylan attempts to read the difficult text on the Keystone Exam [and realizes] that despite his hard-won progress this year, he is not reading on the same level as his same-aged, nondisabled peers.

As Dylan's eyes fill with tears, I remind him of how much progress he made this year, encouraging him to do his best and take breaks as needed. But I can't help but think that his Keystone Exam scores will most likely mirror the results of the other assessments Dylan participates in at Centennial. The Keystones are arguably a valid measure of his academic achievement, but the unintended consequence of these valid results is Dylan's demoralization.